For almost a decade now, the Great British Bake Off has been an Autumn viewing staple – a slice of springtime sweetness to lift the mood as the leaves turn brown, the mercury falls, and school starts up again. However, the filming of Bake Off 2020 has been postponed. After all, 12 bakers packed together in a marquee is hardly social distancing. Could such a delay, or maybe even a year off, be a blessing in disguise for the series?
At its peak, Bake Off was a genuine event TV; in the age of streaming, it superseded our tendencies to binge-watch and instead took us on a gentle, weekly journey with the contestants. The show introduced names that are now familiar within the household; we rooted for Rahul as he steadily gained confidence, and grew to love figures like Nadiya. Above all, the show’s defining quality was kindness; eschewing typical reality TV conventions, Bake Off did not relish its contestants’ distress. The pay-off for us was seeing proud contestants after they were finally declared Star Baker, or marvelling at the seemingly-impossible standards of their creations (bread lion, anyone?). Though there were emotions and difficulties, we sympathised with contestants rather than revelling in their misery. The well-publicized anecdote about Mel and Sue rushing to shout brand names and swear words whenever a contestant started crying seems emblematic of the show’s old ethos.
However, Bake Off has not always been immune from an audiences’ tendency towards cruelty. Events like #BinGate dominated Twitter trends and headline news, giving rise to conspiracy theories of Diana leaving (or even being kicked off) after accusations of maliciously taking Iain’s Baked Alaska out of the freezer. Diana had to clarify that her sudden departure in the following episode was due to a fall, and Diana’s daughter accused the BBC of exploiting her mother. Whilst the show itself may not have basked in the cruelty of the moment, the audience did. To some extent, this was inevitable – the size of the #BinGate controversy indicated just how enormous the show’s potential reach was. With such popularity, some nastiness on social media is, sadly, unavoidable. Luckily (or unluckily?), no moment since has quite reached the level of #BinGate.
If viewing figures are anything to go by, Bake Off is in a process of gradual decline, though not to the point where cancellation would be considered. The extent to which this can be attributed to the general decline in scheduled television is unclear; TV viewing figures have consistently fallen but Bake Off had always seemed capable of overcoming this. To binge-watch Bake Off feels antithetical to the whole experience – it’s a show that’s meant to be experienced collectively as a nation. Having appealed to old ladies and teenagers alike, its almost cult-like status as a ‘national treasure’ as solidified the show as essential viewing. But maybe the notion of Bake Off as a national pastime has become overwhelming; there’s too much pressure to be part of the conversation and keep up with the show religiously. One can see the temptation of foregoing the new series entirely to relieve that pressure.
At the same time, Bake Off’s status as a ‘national treasure’ may have sustained its declining momentum. With audiences becoming seemingly fatigued, a shake-up would theoretically recapture attention but the move to Channel 4 didn’t help figures. When stripped from the BBC in what some regarded as an underhand deal, the show immediately faced calls to boycott and lost three of four presenters. Though Bake Off adapted to its new surroundings reasonably well – the inclusion of Noel Fielding on the new presenting team was inspired – it never regained those die-hard fans who refused to watch it on principle, and its 2019 premiere saw the lowest rating in six years. Recent replacement of Sandi Toksvig with Matt Lucas may lead to a hike in viewing figures, but may also do nothing to stem further decline. It’s a change, but at the same time, many people love Bake Off for its familiarity.
It’s hard to say what the future holds for Bake Off, particularly given the great uncertainty within the TV industry, but the delayed filming of the 2020 series and its inevitable absence from our screens may remind audiences of the comfort food they’re missing. After such a difficult year, perhaps Bake Off will be a needed pick-me-up.